How I dealt with my exam anxiety

When I was in grade 11, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which means I worry irrationally about anything and everything.

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While I’ve learned how to cope with my illness and understand how it affects me, it doesn’t make school any easier. And when it comes to exam season, my anxiety can turn an already stressful situation into a nightmare.

Exam anxiety can happen to anyone, whether you have a pre-existing mental health condition or not. And it’s totally OK to feel this way! Everyone has a different story and different experiences with their own mental health. This is one of mine.

Like most science students, I took calculus in my first semester of first year. Math isn’t exactly my favourite subject, and I’ve struggled with it for a big part of my life. I had a bad grade going into my final, didn’t understand the majority of the material, and had already written three content-heavy exams in that same week. Being burnt out, tired, and stressed before I even opened a textbook didn’t make for the best situation.

Stress isn't the same as anxiety

Stress happens to everyone, and is completely normal to feel during exam time. Anxiety is different. It's a serious mental health concern that doesn't happen to everyone, and should be taken very seriously. Extreme worry and panic start to spiral out of control. Negative thoughts take over so much, you start to believe that every little thing you do is going to ruin your life in some way. Seemingly easy tasks become impossible, and you start to avoid people or places out of fear that you’ll freak out or make things worse. There could even be a physical response, which often happens when you have an anxiety attack.

Stress usually makes anxiety a lot worse, and having anxiety makes it harder to deal with stress. This is essentially what happened to me during the two days leading up to my math final.

If I got to a hard question when I was studying, I’d freeze up right away and start to worry that not knowing the answer meant I’d definitely fail the final. I didn’t want to ask my friends for help because I was scared they’d think I was stupid or not trying. I basically isolated myself in my room, staring blankly at a problem set, not knowing what to do. I was also worrying that failing my math exam meant disappointing myself, making my family upset, not being able to keep up with my program, not being good enough for university, and the list goes on.

None of these worries were real, but my anxiety made me believe they were. And all because I couldn’t get it together to pull a decent grade on a math test.

Friends can be the best support network

Luckily, I had amazing friends in my residence that knew I was having a rough time. One of them offered to try and help me with the material the night before my final. This made me feel a bit better, but halfway through studying, I freaked out and had an anxiety attack—in front of my friends, in the middle of the study lounge on my floor. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I couldn’t breathe, my entire body shook, and I couldn’t make it stop. I was crying, felt sick to my stomach, and was thinking I'd ruined my life and was about to lose all of my friends because I was freaking out so much.

Had it not have been for my friends and an incredibly supportive RA, that night would have been a lot worse. I was so scared that having anxiety would make my friends hate me, but they helped me through my attack and stayed with me until I felt well enough to be by myself. If there’s anything I learned from this situation, it’s that good friends will stick by you no matter what, and will want to be there to help you.

Having anxiety didn’t ruin my friendships, it made them stronger, and it made me realize that there are people around me that I can trust.

It might get worse before it gets better

Of course, I was nervous and worrying the whole time, and walking to the Dalplex to go write the exam was pretty terrible. The whole exam-writing process felt like an out-of-body experience. I felt jumpy, light-headed, and sick the whole time. It was hard to concentrate, my head was clouded with thoughts of failure, and every new question brought another wave of anxiety. I tried to stay as calm as I could and focus on just breathing and making it through the test, but I knew there wasn’t much more I could do at that point.

As difficult as the experience was, I got through it in the end, learned to trust my friends, and eventually got professional help to figure out how to cope with exam anxiety. I didn’t do very well on that final, but my mark was enough to pass the course. That was all that mattered to me in the end. I had gotten through it and I had passed. Everything was going to be OK.

Everyone deals with stress and anxiety differently, but I want you to know that it's completely OK to have exam anxiety and it’s OK to get help for it. It doesn’t make you less intelligent or less capable. I used to think that I had to deal with my anxiety on my own, that I was alone and couldn’t be helped. What I did learn is that I can’t do everything on my own, and that everyone needs some help from time to time.

Are you struggling with anxiety? Find out more about on-campus resources here.